Politics & Society
A Green Light for the Far-Right: Environmental Policy Strife Creates Opening for AfD
In a time of radical change due to war in Ukraine, rising inflation, energy transition, and a second major refugee influx during the past decade, it is no surprise that German democracy is feeling both internal and external pressure. But an unlikely culprit is driving this shift to the far-right: the environment.
The June 2023 “Deutschlandtrend” survey from German public-broadcasting consortium ARD revealed an uncomfortable not-so-secret: Germans are unhappy with their government and are looking for alternatives, quite literally. The monthly survey asks, among other questions, if the election were held this Sunday, which party would get the respondents’ vote. In June, 18% of those polled would vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), tied for second place with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and behind the center-right opposition Christian Democrats at 29%. The other two members of Scholz’s “traffic light coalition,” the Greens and the social market-oriented Free Democrats, came in at 22% combined. Compared to the June 2022 survey, the AfD gained 7% in approval, the largest increase of any party, while the ruling coalition lost 11% in the past year. This is combined with a meager 20% satisfaction rate with the government, a loss of 8% from the April 2023 survey.
In a time of radical change due to war in Ukraine, rising inflation, energy transition, and a second major refugee influx during the past decade, it is no surprise that German democracy is feeling both internal and external pressure. But an unlikely culprit is driving this shift to the far-right: the environment. Despite historically broad support for strong environmental and emissions policies, discord over Germany’s widely debated building law to replace oil and gas heaters, as well as backlash against the increasingly aggressive tactics of climate activists the Last Generation, have triggered an internal referendum on what “reasonable” environmental policy should look like. Following an abrupt and expensive transition away from Russian gas amidst fears of heating shortages this past winter, and continued budgetary restraints as Germany officially enters a recession, Germans are reconsidering the costs of the green transition at the individual and national level. Far-right parties, most notably the AfD, are capitalizing on this societal anxiety and using it to garner support at the polls, framing environmental policy not as an investment in the future, but as a means of restricting present freedoms. This is reflected in the Deutschlandtrend survey, where 47% of those supporting the AfD listed energy, environment, and climate policy as the topics playing a key role in their decision, second only to migration policy.
Germans are reconsidering the costs of the green transition at the individual and national level.
The Alternative for Germany was founded in 2013 on an anti-Eurozone and arguably anti-Europe platform. The party had minimal initial success, earning 4.7% of the vote in the 2013 federal election and thereby missing the 5% threshold required to enter Parliament. Four years later, the party capitalized on the more than 1 million refugees that entered Germany between 2015-2016, which despite then-Chancellor Merkel’s confident proclamation “we can handle this,” sowed bureaucratic, economic, and sociocultural discord across the country. AfD campaign posters in 2017 placed all over Berlin boldly claimed to prefer “burgundy wine over burqas,” with smiling women in dirndls, a both iconic and ironic description of the quintessential German in the gritty, anti-trachten capital city. Other posters got directly to the point, with calls for Germany to “protect borders,” and declaring “no passport, no entry.” This divisive rhetoric translated to the AfD winning a record 12.6% of the vote and a place in the Bundestag. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the party platform shifted, continuing the anti-migration narrative and rejection of multiculturalism while also pushing back against pandemic restrictions. “Germany. But normal.” was a popular AfD campaign banner leaving what—and when—a normal Germany was, open to voter interpretation. The party suffered a slight loss in the 2021 federal election, but still netted 10.3% of the vote, demonstrating that while the messaging may change, the AfD and what it represented were not going anywhere.
Like most populist parties, the AfD is adept at reading issues that are dividing society and adapting its rhetoric to amplify voter discontent. And in 2023, when Germans overwhelmingly support the Euro, the most recent migratory wave has largely settled (in conjunction with broad support for welcoming current Ukrainian refugees into the EU), and the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, the AfD has entered a fourth narrative iteration, focusing primarily on the environment. The AfD in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s largest state and home to the former West German capital of Bonn, shows a series of digital campaign posters on its website devoted to environmental themes, with slogans including “driving a car is freedom,” and that being extreme right previously meant “hatred of immigrants and racially-motivated attacks,” but now means “taking hot showers and not wanting to freeze.”
Like most populist parties, the AfD is adept at reading issues that are dividing society and adapting its rhetoric to amplify voter discontent.
Bremen, Germany’s smallest state by both size and population, often flies under the political radar. However, the state election in May 2023 garnered attention when the little known far-right Citizens in Rage party received 9.4% of the vote, nearly quadruple the 2.4% they received in 2019. While it should be noted that the AfD was disqualified from participating in the election after submitting two candidate lists, it appears that prospective AfD voters decided to cast their ballots for the local far-right party rather than back a more mainstream national contender such as the CDU. That outcome speaks to the sway of the collective protest platform, which aligns on anti-environment messaging. Campaign posters in Bremen and Bremerhaven proclaiming that “driving should not be a luxury” could have just as easily borne the AfD logo as it did Citizens in Rage.
In Thuringia, a largely rural, eastern German state where the AfD won 23.4% of the vote in the 2019 state election, just 48% of residents polled are satisfied with the current state of democracy in Germany. While not explicitly mentioned in the survey, here too could environmental policy exacerbate existing dissonance. The aforementioned Building Energy Act (GEG), which would require the eventual replacement of oil and gas heaters, is opposed by 78% of Germans. In the eastern half of the country, opposition is at 90%. With state elections in Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony scheduled in 2024, expect the environmental debate to be a major topic for the far-right at the polls, in a region already considered an AfD stronghold.
The Alternative for Germany will continue to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with Chancellor Scholz’s disjointed traffic light coalition, using a lack of consensus on environmental policy as a wedge to increase support for their overall platform. It remains to be seen if the environment will remain a top issue until the next Bundestag election in 2025, but at the state level, this approach is already yielding both grassroots returns and electoral wins for far-right parties. In order to change the tide, mainstream parties need to focus on constituent concerns on the economy, defense, and environment, rather than partisan strife, honing in on current local issues rather than policy decades in the future. In doing so, they will prove to voters that there are alternatives beyond the AfD to bring about sustainable, democratic change.